Who will tackle poverty after the election?

An academic study of the British parties’ manifestos ranks their commitment to tackling poverty in the UK and beyond. 

Catarina Tully David Hulme Andrew Stirling
30 April 2015

Image: Flickr/ Paul Downey

With just days to go until the general election, it is striking how absent one theme has been in the campaigns: poverty, its manifestations and causes, and what the political parties plan to do about it.

To help fill this gap, Academics Stand Against Poverty has published an audit of the main political parties’ manifestos, to assess the impact of their policies on UK and global poverty. 

In our analysis, we defined poverty as the absence of a flourishing life, and therefore assessed the extent to which policies will enable society to flourish sustainably, now and in future. We reviewed key policy areas in the main party manifestos, including housing, education, crime and immigration. We evaluated the extent to which these policies will affect poverty in the UK and globally, and introduced a scoring system to allow for simple analysis of our confidence in the parties. We were not able to include the SNP, whose manifesto came out too late for the peer review process.

We are disappointed to conclude that citizens interested in poverty face a bleak choice. The policy platforms of the main two parties fail to inspire confidence in our authors. Scoring lower than '3' (moderate confidence) overall, neither of the two main parties have a robust strategy, nor even creative ideas, to address poverty, and promote flourishing, at home and abroad.

The Conservatives perform badly across almost all policy areas. They are pulled down by specific policies like scrapping the Human Rights Act, triggering the lowest possible score for crime and justice. Despite the promise of “jobs for all”, our authors also have very low confidence in their employment policies, primarily due to the lack of recognition that paid employment is only one element of human flourishing in relation to work. Jobs should, for example, not only paying a Living Wage but be secure, provide respect and dignity, promote well-being and good mental health, offer opportunities for personal development and allow for employee voice. Only the Green Party and Labour come close to recognising this in their employment commitments.

Labour does better than the Conservatives overall, helped by high scores for education and disability. On education, we praise them for “a new, independent system of careers advice, offering personalised face-to-face guidance on routes into university and apprenticeships”, which would go some way towards closing the attainment gap between rich and poor. But both parties inspire at best medium levels of confidence in our authors, ranking the same for example on crime and justice. On this, rather than offering methods for reducing and deterring crime rooted in the inequality that drives it, both Labour and the Conservatives merely suggest more innovative ways of criminalising people and creating more prison spaces to lock them in.

So what we are struck by is the difference that the coalition partners could make in driving the next government’s commitment to addressing poverty.

We fear the influence that UKIP could have in a coalition. UKIP scores poorly overall, with particularly low scores on immigration, crime and justice, health and employment. On immigration, our contributor found that their pledge to ban unskilled migration would have detrimental effects on local economies with resulting social costs, not just for immigrants but for the wider communities. On health they are too focused on minor concerns, such as restricting ‘health tourism’ and scrapping hospital car parking charges, without concern for system-wide delivery.

The Lib Dems are in the middle of the ranking. They score very highly in two policy areas, disability, and money and banking. On disability they consider comprehensively the action required in all sectors to remove barriers and provide the supports needed to lead a good life: health and social care; employment; welfare benefits; education; accessibility of buildings, transport and information. Pledges like making more railway stations accessible, promoting public transport access for people with visual and hearing impairments, and outlawing discrimination against disabled people in taxis and minicabs, make the Lib Dems stand out. But overall there is wide variance in their scores and they lag behind Labour and the Greens on fiscal policy, for example.

The Green party score consistently the highest across all policy areas; an average score of just under 4 out of 5 means that the contributors are 'pretty confident' that the Greens' policies would be effective at addressing the multifaceted dimensions and drivers of poverty.

We suspected they would do well, but we didn’t expect to find them so consistent in proposing innovative policy solutions to long-standing public policy challenges. On social security, for example, their vision is strikingly different to the other parties. Policy proposals like Basic Income reflect an ambition to radically reform the welfare system, to emphasise opportunity rather than dependency. On health, they stand out in their appreciation of the diverse factors that contribute towards good health, setting out a vision of well-being based on satisfying work and a balanced diet alongside good housing, education and transport as well as greater equality. They also go further towards recognizing different segments of society, most explicitly in their mental health commitments.

Individual party scores aside, we are particularly struck by poor performance across the board on employment, fiscal policy and social security. All of these should be crucial in an election where the economy is a driving issue. On employment, our contributor concludes that while some positive changes are promised, these do not offer a sound basis for the opportunities, choice and freedom central to enabling flourishing lives, with young people likely to be particularly badly affected.

Housing scores are also poor for all parties. For all parties except the Greens there is an obsession with the fate of the thwarted first time buyer. More diverse housing needs are neglected, including single people of all ages, those on low incomes who can barely afford to rent, let alone buy, and marginal and vulnerable groups, who have already been so badly affected by the bedroom tax.

We urge interested voters to read our analysis and consider the impact of parties’ policies on poverty when they vote on 7 May. The potential coalition partners in particular could make all the difference. And with an estimated 13 million people currently living in poverty in the UK, we believe that this issue simply cannot be overlooked.

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